Last week I wrote about the premium on accuracy that the set-up of the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Penn. will place on players for next week's U.S. Open. There will be as much or more talk about Merion as the players in the event It's all got me thinking about the kind of course conditions I most enjoy, and which I believe are or should be absolutely fundamental to the game.
Two words: Fast and firm.
Mike Davis, the USGA's imaginative and bold executive director, has directed Merion's director of course operations Matt Shaffer to produce exactly such conditions at Merion. Perfect. That's who he is. He's not a softie when it comes to course conditions. Shaffer is the man for the job. He's been at the grand old club that sits on all of 121 acres–the course itself occupies only 91 acres; it's a bandbox, Fenway to Toronto's Rogers Centre–since 2002.
Shaffer is 53 but he could be 153, based on his love of golf played on ground that will move the ball this way and that and based on how little he cares for a consistent playing surface. He'll get a ton of attention during the Open. Maybe people will start calling him Old Matt Shaffer in homage to Old Tom Morris.
"We're fastidious about not using any water," Shaffer told Golf Channel this week, "so we grow grass with minimalistic inputs; less pesticides, less water, less fertilizer. We're about as opposite of Augusta (Augusta National Golf Club, of course). We don't have an homogenous stand of grass everywhere."
I could listen to Shaffer all day, and I urge any reader to put the headphones on and check out his views wherever they find him. He calls himself "quirky," and he calls himself "edgy," but really, he thinks about golf in all the right ways. One of the reasons it's become crazy expensive is that club members and executive committees want so-called "perfect" conditions. That's nuts. Golf is played outdoors. Chance should play a significant role in what transpires.
Yes, I know that all but impenetrable rough will border Merion's fairways. Or maybe players won't be able to penetrate it sometimes. Maybe they'll lose balls in the rough. Tough. That's golf. That's the way it should be. I hope Merion tests a player's ability to control his emotions when he basically has no shot from the rough a foot off the fairway, but another guy in his group two feet off the fairway can play some kind of shot. What a shame.
"We have all the different varieties of grass that you could possibly conceive in a rough," Shaffer said in the Golf Channel piece. "If you land the ball in a five-foot circle seven different days, you'll get seven different lies."
And if a shot hit with the wrong spin ricochets off the firm turf on the fairways into the rough, again, that's the way it should be, and not only at a U.S. Open. A golf ball is round. It's hard. It should bounce. Golf is infinitely more interesting when it's played on the ground as well as in the air.
Merion will play as Shaffer and his lead superintendent Arron McCurdy want it to play as long as the weather co-operates. Heavy rain and thunderstorms were forecast for Friday. More thunderstorms are possible through Monday. That's hardly ideal, but Merion's root system is so deep, precisely because Shaffer and his crew don't baby it with fertilizer and pesticides, that the turf can absorb this sort of pounding. Shaffer expects the course to be fast and firm for the championship, as long as the rain stops early next week.
The forecast is for that to happen. The forecast is for sunny, warm and breezy conditions during the four days of the U.S. Open. Beautiful.
"If the weather is good, like high skies and low humidity, our greens get very firm, and they're acclimated to taking a beating. We don't water very much," Shaffer said in this informative interview with Golfdom Magazine last month .
A gentleman and a scholar named Dr. William G. Anderson wrote a must-read piece years ago. I clipped it then and, well, I never tire of reading it. It's called John Knox vs. Thomas Jefferson: The Contrast Between Scottish and American Golf. Here's one of the many telling passages.
"Unlike the Scots who laid out courses using the natural terrain, golf architects in the United States attempted to improve nature," he wrote. "During construction land was moved, artificial hazards created, flowers planted, ponds constructed, and the course was fertilized and irrigated. Golf courses were made attractive playgrounds and they were made fair. Hidden bunkers and blind shots became rare. Watered fairways and greens minimized the change of bad bounces. American expect life to be fair; consequently golf must be fair."
Merion is an American course that breathes the soul and fire of many Scottish courses. Here's hoping conditions will allow it to play fast and firm. Let it snort.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein